Malays in the national imagination: Defining our identity

Academic Views / Monday, November 2nd, 2020

Professor Yaacob Ibrahim, Professor of Engineering at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), gave this speech on identity on 30 October 2020, as part of the Cendekiawan Lestari Series (CLS) organised by the Malay Heritage Foundation.

I would like to share my take on the Malay community’s path in finding a place for itself in Singapore. A lot has been written to examine the challenges we have seen. I will go over some of these to highlight some key points and end with some recommendations on how we can go forward in determining the narrative we want for our community.

Recently I was involved in a discussion when someone said he is more like a Malay as he has four children. The comment stunned me. And yet I was not surprised, as it is a long-standing struggle for the community to overcome some of the stereotypes we have been subjected to. But what is most appalling was that the statement was made without any hesitation and as though it has been fully internalised. The ease with which this was said is something to be concerned about, as it can, and does, have severe ramifications for the community’s ability to participate fully in public life in Singapore.

I do not plan to go over a laundry list of our grievances about such remarks and the expectations placed on our community. A lot has been written by Malay Singaporeans on our community’s path to identify who we are, as well as on the experiences of other minority communities worldwide. I would like though to draw upon some experiences to suggest a path forward for all of us to consider.

A well-known book by Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native, famously debunked myths about the alleged laziness of Malay people.

I begin with the all-too-familiar stereotype that we are lazy and not hardworking enough to seize the opportunities before us. The late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas decisively debunked this myth in his famous book, The Myth of the Lazy Native. And yet even today we see some in our community suggesting that by working hard alone we can overcome our challenges. This ignores the social context, and more importantly the barriers faced by some families, in trying to overcome challenges. Certainly, if I worked hard enough at practicing Mathematics, I can overcome it, unless of course I buy into the view that the Malay mind is incapable of understanding Mathematics. And yet this view of working hard ignores the fact that some families can extend more advantages to their children than other families can. In doing so, the bar towards success is raised even further, a point put across succinctly by Associate Professor Teo You Yenn in her seminal book This is What Inequality Looks Like. This notion that only by working hard can we improve our lot essentially places the burden of achieving success solely in our hands. In fact, several books have emerged recently to re-examine the concept of meritocracy. By placing the burden on the community, the analysis ignores the social context and more importantly the years of negative perceptions the community endures.

Another issue of concern is the attempt by some to reduce the identity of the community to a single dimension. One example is when we are asked to decide if we are Malay first or Muslim first. This attempt to cast us into a single identity ignores the very nature of human identity, which is complex and plural. The motive is clearly to underline what is seen by some as the potentially exclusivist nature of religious identity and make cultural identity a de facto choice for us. But this is a false choice. The diversity of identities is such that we call upon different parts of our identity according to the context. So, for example, when our madrasahs were threatened with closure if they were not able to meet certain educational standards, several Malay/Muslim undergraduates stepped forward to offer free tuition to madrasah students. Even though some of them may have never thought about the issue deeply. But the incident sparked in them a common cause with other co-religionists.

Similar attempts to typecast us into a single identity is seen with the so-called Arabization phenomenon. The underlying subtext is that we should retain our ‘moderate’ stance on Islam and not adopt the more rigid and inflexible interpretation of Islam supposedly peddled by Arabs in the Middle East. This view does great injustice to the diversity of religious thinking found in Arab communities. Certainly, we are not in favour of adopting a religious outlook that serves to undermine our long-standing position of co-existing peacefully in a multicultural, multireligious society which is secularly governed. But like any other group, adaption and adoption of ideas and processes is an ongoing exercise. The more important point is that the dominant trend adopted does not undermine our multicultural, multireligious society. Adopting the fashion, food, music or other material trappings of another culture is hardly a new phenomenon. Dressing like Arabs or growing a longer beard is not radically different from the impulse to adopt K-pop paraphernalia. The concern should be about whether the outlook and ways of thinking adopted would undermine our society.

Yet another attempt at typecasting the community is that of labelling all of us as being immigrants to Singapore. This notion again ignores the social and historical context of who we are in relation to this region. I found the article written by Faris Joraimi on “The History of  Malay Singaporeans in Ten Objects” very illuminating. Of interest here is the description of a landing permit “belonging to an ‘anak dagang’ from Java, encapsulates the highly mobile and semi-nomadic nature of people in the Nusantara”. Clearly the notion of young men and women from the region exploring different parts of Nusantara in search for jobs and other career opportunities was a normal event then. So much so that we find groups of Minang people, Baweanese, Javanese and Bugis settling across the Archipelago. And they make up the Malay community in Singapore. Let me add a quote here from that section:

Given this context, it raises questions on whether Singapore was really ‘foreign’ from other parts of the Malay Archipelago, or if the Malays were also ‘immigrants’. Before border controls were implemented and political boundaries drawn, it had always been part of a wider Malay world across which people constantly moved freely.

These are just some examples of how our identity is sometimes defined by others. Yet our history also shows men and women willing to speak up to ensure that typecasting does not go unchallenged. In the early 1980s, a Malay/Muslim organisation objected to some history books used in our schools that cast Singapore prior to 1819 as a period of myths and legends. In fact, earlier in the 1970s, the youth wing of a political party went to the extent of burning history books to object to the distortion of Malay history. I would not condone such an action. But I do believe it is our duty to highlight errors and mistakes in a diplomatic manner.

The challenge of our identity is invariably intertwined with how our state of affairs is viewed by others. The so-called “Malay” problem, commonly simplified as the Malays lagging in all areas of human endeavour as compared to the other communities in Singapore, also served to reinforce certain stereotypes. The fact of the matter is that our community leaders have long realised the need to help our community move forward. The challenges facing the community were discussed in many forums and seminars, which led to various groups coming forward to propose solutions. KGMS, for example, sacrificed the idea of Malay schools when they proposed the concept of National Schools in 1970. It was rejected by the government then, but this move demonstrated the ability of the community to come together and deal with our challenges. In fact, a then newly minted organisation named Majlis Pusat went further by seeking clarification from the government on why Malay male youths were not called up for National Service, which made them less employable. While the situation may have changed today and for the better, we must not ignore the anxieties and anguish faced by the community then. My point is to demonstrate the ability of our community leaders then to raise this matter, as it affected us quite badly.

Another example of leadership of the community is when the late Haji Yaacob Mohamad supported the Association of Malay Journalists in voicing their unhappiness over the visit by the Israeli President to Singapore in 1986. The then-Senior Minister, the late Mr Rajaratnam responded to the criticism from Malaysian protesters by saying, “We are not Muslims”. These famous four words elicited strong reaction from the community including the Association. Mr Rajaratnam had a lengthy response to the Association, which in turn drew a response from Haji Yaacob, who accused Mr. Rajaratnam of practicing McCarthyism. This statesman-like conduct by a leader of our community in facing criticism from a very senior government leader is a demonstration of what can be done in dealing with remarks and innuendoes about the community. We must stand our ground on such matters.

Another popular argument used to explain the lack of achievement of the Malay community is the so-called “culture deficit” theory. In short, it says our culture is backward and hence we are backward. There are two underlying subtexts here which are problematic. First, your culture cannot be changed. It is immutable and hence you have to accept it. In order to change you have to adopt other people’s cultural traits. So, Malays must be more like those who have succeeded. Muslims must change their religious practices or even outlook so as to develop economically. A lot has been written on this subject matter, but allow me to share some points from Dr. Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University, from his book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Of interest here is Chapter 9, titled (very aptly for our discussion) “Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans – Are Some Cultures Incapable of Economic Development”, where he debunked earlier perceptions of two communities, very well known today for their industriousness and building economically successful countries. After a lengthy exposition of the culture deficit theory, he concluded:

But the point is that people’s behaviour is not determined by culture. Moreover, cultures change: so it is wrong to treat culture as destiny, as many culturalists are wont to do.

And in relations to the Japanese and Germans, he concluded:

In other words, many of the “negative” forms of behaviour of the Japanese and Germans in the past were largely the outcomes of economic conditions common to all economically-underdeveloped countries, rather than of their specific cultures. This is why the Germans and the Japanese in the past were “culturally” far more similar to people in today’s developing countries than to the Germans and the Japanese of today.

So clearly there are rational explanations for people’s behaviour and it is not impossible for any community to change. Life is too complex and when we reduce these complexities, we lose the various nuances and insights that can help to explain a community’s state of affairs. Someone once explained to me that Chinese houses are more well-lit than Malay houses because the Chinese community favours learning. Such remarks reflect deep-seated condescension and ignorance of a community. Perhaps the community lacks the means to purchase better lighting fixtures. But the tendency to reduce everything to a single explanation makes us a lot poorer in our understanding of other communities. When we flatten everything, we lose the colour and nuances that can help us appreciate each other better.

The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown confronts the history of American expansionism and its impact on native Americans. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In a recent Facebook post, Professor Tommy Koh highlighted a book he read many years ago, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. This described how Native Americans see the history of the American West, which is very different from how White Americans see it:

Reading this book will help Singaporeans to understand that the Western movies we grew up with, depicting the Native Americans as savages and the white settlers as heroes, is a travesty of the truth.

We need to seize the narrative and write about our history so that the truth of who we are is recorded for all to read. And here I am just not suggesting that we merely compile figures of how many have passed examinations over a certain period to show our success. Figures do not tell the complex realities of human beings and their struggles. When Professor Syed Hussein Alatas wrote his famous book, he was exposing the debilitating effects of colonial ideology on the native population. Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s book on inequality showed up the gaps in implementation, even though the policies are generous in wanting to help those at the bottom. We need accounts written, voiced and produced by us, of our struggles and aspirations, of our history and culture, so that a deeper, more nuanced picture can be established.

Apart from having our own accounts of our history, there is a need for public intellectuals from our midst to deal with issues of stereotypes and prejudices that continue to emerge. These intellectuals play the important role of giving a persuasive public voice to the community. This is not to suggest that only public intellectuals have a role to play in this regard. A hundred years ago, an ascendent West looked upon the East as inferior. Today the story is very different. With the right mix of policies, leaders and civic actions, societies can and have changed. I can understand the feeling of disgust and disbelief when we hear some still peddling misperceptions and prejudices of our community. We all have a duty to correct those misperceptions as best as we can, and to continue to strengthen our belief in who we are, irrespective of those misperceptions. Some may argue that addressing stereotypes and prejudices is not a priority, because we do not suffer from the kinds of abuse and mistreatment that other societies feel. But we feel the pain when we come across prejudices, even though the wound may not visible. Its effects are damaging and insidious.

I should also like to emphasise that this effort to rid ourselves of stereotypes must include our own selves. At the most basic level, we must resist the impulse to pigeonhole ourselves. Each of us has multiple identities. I am a Malay, Muslim in faith, a member of Nusantara, who speaks comfortably in English and Malay, associates easily with IT geeks and nerds, believes in the right of people to chose their own faith, am tolerant of diversity and differences, enjoy a wide variety of food and love doing puzzles. On some issues, I stand with my co-religionists, while on others I stand with those who support a flowering of Malay culture. We must stand for what we believe we are and control that narrative. In fact, as some scholars have argued, when we accept a multiple identity approach in describing ourselves, the multiple intersection of our identities means we are all minorities. This is a powerful view, as it means no one identity is dominant. We all share something in common with almost everyone else.

There is room for a wide variety of efforts beyond the purely intellectual. Another important area of concern is popular culture, and this includes social media and the internet. K-pop became a global phenomenon largely through the television and later the internet. Our artists, poets, dramatists, scriptwriters, animators, filmmakers, bloggers and many others cultural workers have an important contribution to make in giving our community a voice and shaping our narrative. While I will not deny that there have been accurate accounts of our story, our perspective of our story and history is important, as it will provide an insider’s perspective and add further to our collective understanding of our history.

The fate of nasi lemak—once deemed an unhealthy Malay food, then repackaged and repriced as desirable—illustrates questions of identity and culture. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In this regard, I would like to emphasize that positive efforts can go a long way even in very down-to-earth, seemingly innocuous areas. For example, you may view culinary matters as trivial, but in fact it is a topic that hits at the core of who we are and how others see us. This can be seen in the uproar about the re-designation of Malay cakes as nonya cakes or nasi ambeng as nonya food. When some non-Malays started selling nasi lemak to upmarket crowds, there was a cry of unfair treatment, since nasi lemak was once deemed to be among the unhealthy foods of the Malay community. But now after fanciful repackaging and pricing, it is deemed a desirable food product for Singaporeans. How can we not feel that our identities are threatened when the rules are applied differently to different groups of people?

The French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf in In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong spoke at length about how heritages that inform our identity are both fluid and plural in nature. He cites historian Marc Bloch: “Men are more the sons of their time than of their fathers.” Maalouf was of the view that we are closer to our contemporaries than our ancestors and should celebrate two heritages, one from our past and the other from our contemporary situation, albeit in varying degrees. In doing so, he argued that we must be able to recognise ourselves positively in what we see around us. The counter to this view is the attempt to continuously differentiate the communities on some allegiances. This analysis by Amin Maalouf is useful as our experiences as a community are increasingly reflective of the wider community. After almost 60 years of nation building, with full participation of all communities, there is invariably greater convergence in terms of experiences, especially among our young. Many among our young are proud to do their part as Singaporean while retaining many features of our identity as Malays.

The experiences of our young are very different from that of the previous generation. The ease with which they interact and participate actively in national life suggest a generation more confident of their place in Singapore. This is good. But it is also important for this generation not to forget the challenges of the previous generation and to preserve as much as possible our strengths, such as our cultural and religious values, appreciation of family ties, respect for elders and our traditions. However, it is also important for the younger generation to lay claim on our identity based on their own experiences and their sense of confidence in being Singaporeans of Malay descent. My challenge to the younger generation is not to burden yourself with the baggage of history but not to ignore the lessons we have learnt as a community and use those lessons in the continuous reshaping of the narrative. We have resisted a binary definition of who we are. And we must not accept it even from within the community. Your diversity of experiences and the repertoire of experiences gained from past struggles is a powerful mix that can further enrich our identity.

The examples I have shared tonight serve to remind ourselves and the younger generation that the struggle to define who we are is never-ending. These examples also show that we must continually work at it, learning from past experiences and informing the way forward with new experiences and new and diverse voices from the community. Hence the need for a continuous range of efforts from intellectual discussions and writings, to the analysis of our community’s history and the dissemination of positive images of our community through popular culture. Along with these there must be an honest, ongoing analysis of those traits in our community that must change. While we must have a sense of pride of who we are, we must also have a sense of responsibility to change things that are wrong. There is enough evidence in our recent history to show that we are capable of changing into a more resilient, compassionate and enduring community.

What I have presented is certainly far from exhaustive. Our ability to resist narratives that cast us negatively requires a deeper analysis of the various actors involved in perpetuating those narratives. In some countries, different tribes who once lived peacefully became enemies because of political actors who sought to gain from such conflicts. We are in a different situation where there is a commitment from everyone to ensure that all of us live harmoniously together. And we must applaud and support the various efforts by our government, religious and community groups and civil society organisations to strengthen the ties that bind us as a nation. But negative or harmful perceptions of each other linger on and sometimes become almost second nature. When the community is seen as not as capable as others, the pain is deep. When we come across one of us being passed over or denied equal access as others, we cannot but feel the sense of being discriminated against. Some instances could be just innocent mistakes, while others could be borne out of the belief of superiority. The challenge is for all of us to come together and to accord respect and dignity to each other, irrespective of race, language or religion. It is the meritorious thing to do.

Professor Yaacob is Advisor to the President of SIT and Director for SIT’s Community Leadership and Social Innovation Centre, as well as a former as Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs.

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